Pop Culture And The Death Penalty Project: John Grisham’s ‘The Confession’

Just a reminder, we’re doing a screening of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss tomorrow in Washington, DC. Details on how to RSVP are here. And we’ll head over to the second-floor bar at the Gallery Place Clyde’s to discuss the movie after the screening is over. Next week, we begin our conversation about women and the death penalty, and we’ll be watching and discussing Patty Jenkins’ Monster.

One of the things I’ve found interesting about John Grisham’s work is the extent to which he’s shifted from telling stories in which his main characters, who tend to be straight, white men, do the right thing when faced with criminality, to stories in which those same straight, white men end up joining social justice movements. Rev. Keith Schroeder’s journey in The Confession is identical to that taken by Michael Brock in The Street Lawyer: two men who believe they’re not directly influenced or threatened by injustice find themselves in the path of its unintended consequences, and come to believe that their sense of remove is unsustainable. There’s no question that these kinds of stories risk becoming The Help redux, tales about white saviors who rescue disadvantaged people from problems they’re unable to work their way out of. But in Grisham’s stories, his white boys tend to fail: an execution takes place, a homeless family freezes to death. The work these men end up doing is within movements, not at the head of them.

But it’s the things that bring them to consciousness that matter. Because while The Confession is far from Grisham’s best novel, it’s about a critically important problem: the profound need many people have to believe the criminal justice system works, and how it makes them violently resistant to the prospect that it errs, and that people can die as a result of those mistakes.

The Schroeders are nice people, but until they find themselves in direct contact with a murderer and the death penalty, they have absolutely no idea what happens in the system. “Texas is one of several states with a well-developed case law allowing prosecutions in murder cases where there is no definitive proof that a murder has indeed taken place. A dead body is not always required…Can you believe it?” Dana asks her husband. Even Travis Boyette, Nicole Yarber’s real murderer, and a man who is intimately familiar with the criminal justice system, can’t quite process that Donte Drumm’s conviction for raping and killing a white woman went so far. “Even in Texas they have higher courts to review cases and such,” he tells Keith, explaining why he hasn’t come forward before. “Surely, somebody along the way would wake up and see the obvious.”

And these aren’t even people who have invested a substantial part of their identity in their absolute certainty about the case. Paul Koffee goes to pieces at the prospect of admitting that the case he rebuilt his career on was a lie: “No, he would not do it. He would rather run like a coward than deal with that woman. Admitting they had prosecuted and executed the wrong man was, at that moment, far beyond the limits of his imagination.” The novel doesn’t really get into the whole edifice of assumptions you have to dismantle if you’re going to admit that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, much less that it can be grossly manipulated by people acting in bad faith. The football team’s evolution is sort of opaque, and none of the characters involved in it are presented to us as real people, but it goes get at a few of the emotions involved in that process:

He, along with most of the whites he knew, had felt all along that Donté was guilty and getting what he deserved. He was wrong, so incredibly wrong, and he would always carry the guilt. He apologized for what he’d believed, that he’d favored the execution. Denny became emotional and, trying to keep his composure, finished by saying that he hoped Cedric and Marvin, the rest of the family, and his black teammates could find it in their hearts to forgive him. Other confessionals followed, and the meeting became a prolonged and fruitful effort at reconciliation. It was a team, complete with petty grudges and fierce rivalries, but most of the boys had played football together since middle school and knew each other well. They had nothing to gain by allowing the bitterness to fester.

And I wish the book had done a bit more about the costs that victims’ families pay for wrongful convictions. Reeva is a despicable character for the vast majority of the novel, until the foundation on which she’s built her life comes crashing down. Grisham tells us that the cop and prosecutor who told her they’d caught her daughter’s killer “had misled her, betrayed her, and wounded her so deeply that she would never recover. As the architects of the wrongful conviction, Kerber and Koffee had a list of victims that was growing steadily. Reeva and her family had been added.” But like most things in this novel, we’re made to listen more than we’re made to feel. Grisham’s outlined a critical problem for advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, but it doesn’t leave us with much in the way of solutions.